The XIX century’s Kazakhstan through the eyes of Alexander Humboldt


Alexander Frederick Heinrich von Humboldt (1769-1859) was an outstanding German explorer, "the father of modern geography", and "Aristotle of the nineteenth century".

A White Spot Attraction

An extensive region of remote Asia in the early 19th century was a huge gap on the map. Not a single European scientific researcher, or, let's not even say a scientist, but just an educated and critically minded traveler of new time had been to that large territory stretching from Lake Balkhash to the Himalayas and from Altai to Iran. Geographic information from Humboldt's times still largely relied on the medieval narrative of Marco Polo and Xuan-Zang.

Famed for its long-term studies of the South American wilderness, Humboldt was not an armchair scientist. He was invincibly attracted by the wilderness. India, the Himalayas, China, and particularly Central Asia were his ultimate dream. But the chance, if not to get there but at least to get closer to the cherished dream, had not come true fast enough.

It happened only in 1829 when 60-year-old Humboldt, already a world-famous scientist, together with the naturalist Ehrenberg and the geologist Rosѐ made a big fact-finding trip to Siberia at the invitation of the Russian Government. The Encyclopedia of Brockhaus and Efron described the expedition, which often sounded like an official voyage of honored guests:

"On the 12th of April 1829 Humboldt left Berlin with his companions, Mr. Rosѐ and Mr. Ehrenberg, and on the 1st of May, they arrived in St. Petersburg. Prior to that, in Berlin, he had received a bill for 1,200 gold coins (chervonets) and then in St. Petersburg. - 20,000 rubles. Everywhere, crews, accommodation, horses and everything that could be necessary were prepared in advance; they were accompanied by a guide - a government official from the mountain department, Menshenin, who spoke German and French; and in dangerous regions, at the Asian border, the travelers were accompanied by an armed escort."

Ridder, Ivanovsky Mountain Peak and Gromotukha River

That's when the great geographer stepped onto the territory of modern Kazakhstan, having visited the three of its extreme parts, which at that time had become a part of the Russian Empire. To the east, the expedition visited Semipalatinsk, Ust-Kamenogorsk, Ridder, the towns of Zyryanovsk, saw the mountains of Altai, sailed by the Irtysh. In the north, they crossed the town of Petropavlovsk. To the west, they had been to Uralsk town.

The longest stay was in Altai and Irtysh Land. Let us start with this.

At the end of July Humboldt got to the town of Ridder. The main difficulty of the expedition was that the world-renowned scientist and his companions had been greeted everywhere with so much attention and hospitality, as to why lunches appeared to be more memorable than the research itself. On the other hand, the citizens of Ridder were not distinguishable with their hospitality towards Humboldt, compared to the other locations. According to flashbacks, in Ridder Humboldt with his comrades were provided with several "miserable dog-hutches" and on top of that they were kept without being fed the whole day!

Perhaps due to these circumstances, here the Germans saw a lot more of what could have been lost in case of realization of the typical scenario. Humboldt descended into the mines, examined the upper reaches of Ulba River, and even looked behind Ivanovsky Mountain Peak - the noisy and wild river Gromotukha. He wrote enthusiastically in his letters:

"The peaks of the surrounding mountains, covered with eternal snow, represented the only available view; right in front of the windows of my apartment is the Ivanovsky Mountain Peak that is 7500 ft high. Looked like it was soaring above the clouds...

Just before the evening Menshinin and I went riding for 10 milestones to see the Gromotukha River descending from the snow-covered mountain peaks; the river in its terrible fall discharges huge masses of different species. Its noise is heard two milestones away from the river, that is why it was given a decent name like Gromotukha. Here, on the wooded grounds of the mountains, wild goats and bears often flashes before our eyes; dimensionless forests consist of the highest silver-firs, pines, birches, and simple poplars.

Ural, in terms of mountains, is, of course, very important, but the real joy of Asian travel was given to us only by Altai!”

Ust-Kamenogorsk, Zyryanovsk, Semey towns

In early August the expedition got to Ust-Kamenogorsk. Here local merchants offered the guests "a pretty impressive" dinner with champagne. And on August the 2nd, Humboldt and his companions left for Bukhtarminskaya Fortress along the road, "which was going through gorges of high mountains, like crossing the Caucasus”.

The main purpose of the journey deep into Altai, as elsewhere, was to study nature; in particular, geology (participation of mineralogist Rose added to the interest). It is no coincidence that Zyryanovsk was so attractive with its rich silver mines where Humboldt, as elsewhere, descended himself. The Zyryanovsk mine, which at that time employed 700 miners, was producing 500 pounds of silver per year.

On August the 5th, the researchers crossed the Chinese border and went to Baty (in Kazakh - Kosh Tobe), a Chinese kilometer post on the bank of the Irtysh River, not far from Bukhtarma River. There Humboldt had a long talk with the local chief, an officer from Beijing, checking his own knowledge about China. The official talk took place in a yurt with the help of three translators. One of them translated from French into Russian, the second one - from Russian to Mongolian, and then the third one translated from Mongolian into Chinese, and back. The next day travelers returned to the Russian Empire.

From Bukhtarminsk to Ust-Kamenogorsk, they decided to move by the Irtysh River on rafts. Each raft consisted of three boats with a yurt on the deck as a protection from the rain. Despite bad weather, that original rafting in the yurts was inspired by the Germans. Mostly because the Irtysh flowed in a narrow gorge surrounded by picturesque rocks.

Along the Irtysh River

On August the 8th, they departed from Ust-Kamenogorsk and by August the 15th, they were in Omsk. They lingered in Semipalatinsk (Semey), where they talked to Kazakh elders and merchants in charge of coffles to Central Asia, a mysterious region hidden from the European explorers.

In Semipalatinsk, there was someone to talk to in German - a local superintendent, Lieutenant Colonel Von Klosterman, and a commandant Colonel Von Kompenom both originated from German Revel. Commandant presented the famous people with expensive gifts - tiger and leopard skins procured by local hunters. And an indispensable dinner was held at the merchant Popov's place, who owned a fair collection of Chinese items and minerals.

A trip along the Irtysh was rapid and swift. So, the European scientists only admired pictures resembling wandering villages (aouls), coffles of camels, riding in all directions with Kazakh horsemen. They only stopped for a while next to such remarkable places as the famous salt lakes - Jamyshevskoe and Koryakovskoe.

Kazakh celebration in Orenburg

As quickly as before, they rushed along the route of Gorkaya Line passing by the town of Petropavlovsk. And on September the 9th they already got to Orenburg, a city that, like Omsk and Semipalatinsk in those days, was considered as the "gateway to the steppes".

Here, on September the 13th, on the eve of departure, city officials arranged for the guests a "Kazakh celebration with wrestling, horse races, running, taking a silver ruble out of a boiler with porridge using only mouth, music and singing, which apparently attracted the interest of the German scientists." Although the main task of that comfortable expedition was still studying nature, a great impression on Humboldt was made by that meeting with Kazakhs.

"Like bright spots, like pleasant memories, should I call horse racing and music festival in the Kazakh steppe near Orenburg," he wrote in one letter. And in the other, he added: "... A huge mass of nomads excites much more interest than the majestic rivers and snow-capped peaks. Looking at them you are mentally transported back into the past,  to the era of great migrations.”

Khan Jangir's regret

Further, the plan included a visit to the Caspian Sea. Initially, they were supposed to go along the Ural River to the town of Guriev, across the land of Ural Cossack Army, or across the Bukey Horde. But then they decided not to risk it as those places were still restless, and went through Samara, Saratov, and Astrakhan' cities.

But they popped in Uralsk town for a couple of days to see the autumn floodplain and a traditional Cossack fishing of sturgeon in the Ural River. For that occasion, a local chief Borodin even pushed hard deadlines for general army fishing to earlier dates.

Here in Uralsk, "The great Kazakhstan voyage" of the German geographer had ended. However, all of a sudden, later he had a meeting with one of the most famous Kazakhs of the time, Khan Jangir, the ruler of Bukey Horde. The meeting took place on the bank of the Volga River, at the quarters of Kalmyk Prince Serejab Tyumenev.

It is here, where Humboldt happened to meet with "a very educated person, speaking Russian, Persian, and Arabic; the young khan of internal Kazakh Horde, Jegangir (Jangir) Bukeev." The khan said it was regrettable that the expedition did not go through his territory and treated everybody to koumiss (fermented mare’s milk).

Instead of an epilogue

Almost two centuries have passed since Humboldt's journey. And the one who wishes to pass the Kazakhstani paths of the great geographer nowadays will come into contact with absolutely different realities and travel conditions. This is due to the fact, that over time not only the political realities have radically changed, but even geographical representations have become different. We are not even talking about lifestyles of the people in the lands of past nomads.

So the one, who will go in the footsteps of the German expedition, everywhere will find roads and hotels, transport and communication and all other facilities included in comfortable tourism. And while for Humboldt his lifelong dream of Central Asia confined on the outskirts, everything, that left undiscovered in 1829, is now open to his current followers!

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